Culture Shock – “What’s Different?

I’ve now officially been living in Thailand for three months. People back home often ask questions like “What’s it like there?” and my first response is “It’s very different”.  Then I get a question like “What’s different there?” Now that’s a difficult question for me to answer, as that would entail just about everything. Transportation, food, culture, lifestyle, religion, customs, communication, language, and the list goes on… I think a better question to ask would be “What’s not different?” or “What’s the same?” After studying abroad, and then deciding to come to Thailand, I had heard a lot about culture shock and being prepared for it. If I didn’t understand culture shock before, I certainly know it now. And that’s not a bad thing.  Experiencing culture shock was what really allowed me to grow, open my mind, and further understand my fascination with travel. That’s exactly it, that is what my fascination always was with travel – seeing the world and in particular seeing these places which were so much different than my home.

So let’s try and answer that question, “What’s different?”

1. Transportation:

Well, I’m riding my bicycle down the street on my way to work. The first vehicle that passes by me is a man in a tricycle vehicle with an open area in the front for storage – filled with raw chicken meat. The second is an entire family of four riding to school on a motorbike, mom in the middle surrounded by her three young kids. This may have seemed very unusual to me about 3 months ago, but now this is pretty much a typical day in the life. I’ve seen just about anything on a motorbike here… a mom holding a newborn baby, a woman holding her dog in front of her whilst driving, people carrying massive unwieldy objects while driving, you name it.  Oh, and more often than not, adults will have helmets while their children will be without (the law is that ONLY the driver needs to wear a helmet).  Motorbikes often have various portable food stalls attached to one side of their bikes which they can park just about anywhere.

I have taken many unique vehicles and forms of public transportation here but have surprisingly taken very few taxis. In Chiang Mai, the common mode of transportation was called a songthaew – or a renovated truck with two long benches on either side in the back fitting about 10 people comfortably (more can be squeezed in if necessary).  I have also frequently taken various tuk-tuks (tricycle/motorized vehicles).  For longer distance travel, I’ve taken vans, buses, overnight sleeper trains, sky trains, boats, motorbikes, etc. It’s quite easy to find public transportation just about anywhere you want to go in Thailand. Just another tip: if you are planning on traveling in Thailand and are taking a long bus ride, make sure to bring your winter coat… maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but they keep those buses pretty cold.

For me, this is one of the things that stood out the most. Not just the many, many new types of vehicles and arrangements of people, animals, and items in and on these vehicles, but also the traffic rules or lack thereof… it’s always an exciting time here.

2. Food:

In Thailand, food is a very important part of the culture.  Before I came to Thailand, everyone brought up the food… everyone loves Thai food. It’s much different.  They use a lot of different vegetables than we are used to in the West, and the food is very spicy, flavorful and delicious. I think people think of some of the popular dishes like Pad Thai, but Thai food is a lot more than that. Some of my favorite Thai foods include:
1. Pad Thai (of course 🙂
2. Pad Pak (stir-fried vegetables and rice)
3. Som Tam (papaya salad – I always make sure to say “mai bpet” meaning mild, cause this one can get pretty spicy)
4. Tom Yam (coconut milk soup)
5. Rice omelet

Other than these, I am usually snacking on lots of fruits (mangos, pineapples, bananas, cantaloupe, etc) and eating way too much dessert (which is all too easy to find here and a problem for me). My favorite desserts include:
1. Mango sticky rice (made of mango, coconut, coconut milk, and sticky rice)
2. Coconut Ice Cream (found in a lot of places but my favorite that I have had was in Bangkok and in Laos – served out of a coconut with nuts, coconut flakes, and sweet rice on top. And I just really loveeee coconut)
3. Banana chocolate spring rolls
4. Thai-style Ice Cream (Thailand ice cream toppings include: various fruits, eggs, bread, corn, etc… a little different from home but still delicious – just goes to prove anything is good with ice cream)


The biggest struggle for me is being a vegetarian in my town. I learned my first day out in town how to say vegetarian and how to ask for the one vegetarian dish that is common “pad pak” which is now my go-to meal. On the first day I went out on the street in my town and tried to ask for vegetarian food.  Eventually, the woman finally understood what I was saying and just laughed and said “No”. I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a meal without meat here, and how few meals use a lot of vegetables.

Something else I have realized about Thailand, no matter where you go, you know you will never go hungry. For Thai people, food is a very important part of their culture, and they will always make sure that you have food to eat. Any of the bus rides that I have taken for longer than 5 hours, they will usually give you a snack and drink, and shorter bus rides they always make sure to stop for food. At home, the common greeting we would say is “How are you?”, while here they would say “Gin khao reu yang?” which literally translates to “Have you eaten rice yet?” or “Have you eaten yet?” (rice basically equals food in general because rice is a staple for every meal). Wherever I go in Thailand, I know that there will always be food available (though I may not know what it is or how to order it).

3: Night Markets:

Every town in Thailand has its own night market, which is mostly food stalls and restaurants dispersed with various shops of clothing, shoes, and other items. For me, the night markets are a very rich experience of Thai culture. Especially in my town, it feels like a genuine experience right there in the middle of the Thai culture. The night markets are often overwhelming and confusing for me as I am trying to find and order food in English and find where I am going amidst the crowds of people. In the night markets, you can find various types of foods: seafood, fish, meat on a stick, typical Thai dishes, other foods, dessert and drink stalls, etc.

Some of these markets or walking streets (such as the night markets in Chiang Mai) seem to be never ending with endless shops and food stalls. The night markets in Chiang Mai have lots of colorful clothes (lots of elephant pants) and cool artsy stuff too. If you are visiting Thailand, you must experience at least one night market.

4: Collectivistic Culture:

The US is very individualistic. People want to be different, to stand out, and be recognized. Here, in Thailand, it seems to be quite the opposite. I have firsthand experience and understanding of this entirely different culture being a high school teacher. All of the students have the same haircuts, and generally spend not only the school day but the time after leaving school in their school uniforms. Students are very shy and nervous to speak on their own, so we make sure to do a lot of group and partner work. I see so much of this cultural difference watching the behavior of the kids. It was very striking to me, my first experience in a Thai school, when we went to work at an English camp for middle school kids. I noticed how close the kids were with one another, very touchy-feely. I would see boys basically sitting in each other’s laps, and it is just a different level of comfort between friends. I thought it was really cool to see how close they were, but it was just such a different dynamic than what we would see back in the US especially with that age level. Despite the different cultural dynamic, ultimately I can see that they are just typical high school kids.

All in all, I can see how much Thai people care for one another and how they will always make sure to take care of their families and friends and do what they need to do for them. I have found so much of this generosity from Thai people, not just people I know but complete strangers that want to do anything they can to help me. Despite the language barrier and other obstacles, I always feel comfortable asking for help, and knowing that Thai people will always go out of their way to help me and if they can’t help me they will find someone who can. This is pretty amazing to see, and I have experienced this many times and have heard numerous stories of this generosity. Not that people at home are not generous, but generally, it seems people have a different viewpoint and I just don’t see this type of sentiment so often at home.

5: Communication/Language:

The language barrier is a real struggle for me. And I really hate the fact that I still feel like I can barely communicate in Thai after this much time.  I think that as someone who is living in another culture it’s important to learn to communicate in their language.  Nonetheless, I have learned a good amount of Thai along the way and I feel a small sense of victory when I can understand and respond to a basic phrase. I am gradually learning some basic expressions and am slowly picking up on some more of the language.

The language style and structure and sounds are so much different. It’s nothing like the languages that I have learned. Thai is a tonal language and there are five different tones, meaning you can say a word like “ma” in 5 different ways and it will mean 5 different things (high, rising, low, falling, and even tones). So even if I know the word to say, I am afraid of mispronouncing it.

The two most common forms of non-verbal communication include the wai and the smile. When greeting a friend or coworker, you will always see people wai-ing each other.  A wai is shown by a slightly bowed head while holding your hands together to your nose. Thai people always seem to be smiling.  Even if you don’t say any words, you can always communicate through a shared smile.

Living and working in Thailand has taught me the meaning of culture shock. I am literally just about as far as I can get from home, the complete opposite side of the world. So things are different over here. I could go on with this list, but I think it is just something that you need to experience to truly understand. Living in Thailand has allowed me to experience another culture firsthand every single day. At work, at home, getting food, going around town, every single day is a new experience. And it’s not always easy. It can be exhausting trying to find your way around and get by and figure out what you need to figure out without understanding the language. Some days I just want to hear someone speak English, and have someone actually understand what I am saying. It can be frustrating and overwhelming at times, but there’s truly nothing more incredible than getting to meet and learn from so many different people and cultures. There’s an opportunity to learn and understand the world more every single day, and that’s the beautiful thing about travel for me.

Despite all the differences and challenges, overcoming these and learning to become a part of a new culture and feel at home in a different place, I think that’s what this is all about.
Living and working abroad has been a beautiful, wonderful challenge for me. And that’s why I’m here.

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